By Ajit Kumar Singh*
On September 30, 2018, a Policeman was killed and his rifle was snatched when suspected Hizb-ul-Mujahideen (HM) militants attacked Police Station Shopian in Shopian District The slain Policeman, identified as Saqib Mohiudin, was manning the entry gate of the Police Station when the attack took place at around 6 am [IST].
On September 21, 2018, terrorists abducted and killed three Special Police Officers (SPOs) in the Shopian District. The terrorists abducted SPOs Firdous Ahmad Kuchey and Kuldeep Singh – both residents of Batgund village, and SPO Nisar Ahmad Dhobi, resident of Kapran village. Police later recovered bodies of the three SPOs from nearby Wangam village. The SPOs were shot multiple times. A civilian, Fayaz Ahmad Bhat, a resident of Kapran village, who was also abducted along with slain SPO Nisar Ahmad Dhobi, was let off.
On August 22, 2018, terrorists fired upon and killed a Policeman, identified as Fayaz Ahmad Shah in Awgam village of Kulgam District. Shah was coming out from a local mosque after prayers and was on his way home, when terrorists fired at him. Shah, who had joined as an SPO, had recently been promoted to the rank of constable.
On the same day, a Policeman identified as Mohammad Yaqoob was killed by terrorists in the Louswani area of Pulwama District. Mohammad Yaqoob was fired upon by the terrorists at point-blank range outside his home at Louswani village.
These incidents are neither a new development nor indicative of any significant shift in terrorist strategy. According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), at least 34 policemen have been killed in the current year so far (data till September 30, 2018), of whom 28 were killed in incidents of targeted killing (whether on or off duty). During the corresponding period of 2017, a total of 23 policemen had been killed, all in incidents of targeted killing. Through 2017, a total of 30 policemen were killed, 27 of them in incidents of targeted killing.
According to a September 22, 2018, media report, at least 1,660 police personnel have been killed by terrorists in Kashmir since 1990. Though it is not clear that how many of these 1,660 policemen were SPOs, according to SATP data at least five of 27 policemen killed in incidents of targeted killing in 2018 were SPOs, while another three joined as SPOs, but were later absorbed into the State Police Force.
Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) has 78,348 policemen in position against a sanctioned strength of 89,954. In addition, there are over 30,000 SPOs to assist the Policemen. This entire Police Force has played a significant role in fighting Pakistan-backed terrorism and helped dramatically improve the security situation in the State.
The Police and SPOs are soft targets, as they are not as well equipped and trained as their counterparts in the Central Armed Police Forces (CAPFs) and the Army units deployed in the State. These vulnerabilities are increased further as they live within the general population with their families, and not in fortified camps, as is the case with Army and CAPF personnel. Since the people working in the Police are local residents, their killing instills a wider fear across the population.
The fall of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) – Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) coalition Government in June 2018, has brought about a measure of political uncertainty in the State. The process of local body elections in the State has now commenced, with the State Election Commission (SEC) announcing, on September 15, the poll schedule for Municipal Elections in J&K. The municipal election will be held in four phases starting from October 8 and ending on October 16. Counting will be held on October 20 after all the phases are over. The entire electoral exercise will be completed by October 27. Then on September 16, SEC announced a nine-phase schedule for Panchayat (village level local self-Government institution) elections in the State, beginning November 17 and ending December 11, with the entire election process to be completed by December 17.
On August 27, 2018, the fourth election to the 30-seat Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC) Kargil had been held, with more than 70 per cent of the electorate turning out to exercise their franchise. Elections were held on 26 seats, of which the National Conference (NC) bagged 10 seats, the Congress, eight; PDP, two; and the BJP, one. Five seats were won by independents. The remaining four seats will be filled through nominations.
The last Panchayat elections in the State were held in 2011, and were quite successful. Over 79 percent of the electorate had exercised their right to vote, between April 13 to June 27, 2011, in the Panchayat elections. Though the Panchayats completed their term in July 2016, elections could not be held because the security situation in the state remained fraught.
With the election process in motion once again, terrorist efforts to disrupt the process are escalating. The targeting of Policemen is part of this effort. However, an unnamed senior police officer asserted, “There is no fear psychosis among policemen, no matter which wing they are affiliated with. But militants are trying to create that (fear)…”
This time around, however, the beginnings are not encouraging. The two political formation dominant in the Valley – the PDP and the National Conference – have already announced their decision to boycott the panchayat elections, unless the Centre and the State Government clarify their stance on Articles 370 (autonomous status of J&K) and 35A (special rights and privileges of ‘permanent residents’)of the Indian Constitution. The two articles have been a critical element in the polarizing politics of the BJP, which holds power at the Centre. 35A is the subject of ongoing litigation in the Supreme Court, and each hearing provokes significant political tremors in the Valley.
Further, there does appear to be a pall of fear in some areas of the State, dampening the enthusiasm for election. According to reports, no nomination has been received for the five wards of the Frisal Municipal Committee in Kulgam District. Only five nominations have been received in 17 wards of the Bijbehara Municipal Committee in Anantnag District. Both these Districts fall in the South Kashmir region, which has recorded the maximum number of killings of Policemen in 2018, thus far. In contrast, 198 nominations were received for 41 wards in the Udhampur District.
The state machinery is under pressure to conduct these elections successfully as the Assembly and Parliamentary elections fall due. It is useful to recall here that only seven per cent polling was reported in the Srinagar Lok Sabha by-election held on April 9, 2017. Widespread violence was reported during the polls. Eight persons were killed in police firing and over a hundred were injured in clashes between protesters and SFs on polling day. Former J&K Chief Minister and National Conference leader Farooq Abdullah had won the seat, defeating his nearest PDP rival, Nazir Ahmed Khan. During 2014, the Parliamentary constituency had recorded a low 25.86 per cent poling against an average of 49.52 per cent for the State. The national average was 66.4 per cent. In Assembly Elections held in 2014 the state had recorded 65.52 per cent polling.
Another significant reason for the increasing number of targeted killings of Policemen is the substantial loss – both in terms of quality and number – suffered by terrorists in recent years. According to SATP data, at least 184 terrorists have been killed in the current year, so far, as against 160 terrorists killed during the corresponding period of 2017. The total number of terrorists killed through 2017 stood at 218, the highest recorded in this category since 2010, with 270 such fatalities. Significantly, operational successes in the recent years have been primarily due to the improvement in the quality of intelligence gathered, the credit for which goes substantially to the SPOs and local policemen. The targeting to these cadres is, consequently, also a measure of the desperation with which the terrorist formations are fighting to stem the tide of their own losses.
Further, despite relentless efforts, Islamabad has failed in its attempt to push Kashmir back into the chaos of the 1990s and early 2000s. The overall security situation in the state is far from alarming and “much of the panicked assessment of the troubles in J&K” is misleading. Crucially, residual violence is extremely localised. Just five of 82 tehsils in the state have accounted for over 48.71 per cent of all fatalities in 2018; and for over 65 per cent of all reported stone-pelting incidents [SATP data till September 30, 2018.
Targeted killings of SFs, primarily Policemen and SPOs, are likely to continue, even as candidates in the panchayat elections will come under threat. The protection of every single candidate in these elections is an imperative, and will have a crucial impact on participation in the coming Assembly and National Elections.
*Ajit Kumar Singh
Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management